To pay homage to the old song by The Divine Comedy, ‘when your life’s in a mess, take the Orient Express!”….except I didn’t, it just sounded reasonably witty. So no I didn’t. I did, however, end up at the last stop for the now defunct Express: Istanbul.
Plus my life wasn’t that much in a mess. Nothing other fellow human beings haven’t been through before. But I think it deserves mentioning, that this is some months after the worst Christmas and New Year I’ve ever known (two deaths, one especially significant, and a following romantic relationship breakdown, which I now know was also significant). I suppose, months later, I just felt like getting the hell away from what I suppose I now saw as a right mess, to somewhere a bit more far flung than Spain or even Greece (although I do love both places). I needed to experience something, stretch my horizons a bit and maybe also reflect, but a long way away. However, friends and family were not available as potential travel companions while I was on leave, so I thought a solo excursion could be a great idea. But, at the same time, as I was travelling on my own, I didn’t necessarily want to culture shock myself with a week in rural Peru or a sabbatical in Yemen. You’ve got to take these things in easy stages. So Istanbul, in Turkey, seemed exotic and foreign enough without sending my usually high stress levels into outer space with worry about whether I was going to get by with no language or culture in common.
Travelling solo isn’t for everyone, that much I’ve come to learn. Fortunately it was for me, mainly because I’m quite self sufficient, I’m eternally curious, I like an element of surprise and the unknown and also don’t mind meeting new people (but that’s not to suggest I want them in my face 24/7). I stayed at a hostel (Hostelworld Istanbul, not far from the historical landmark Galata Tower, making it easy to find). Staying there, in a hostel, was a deliberate move as I knew it’d force my hand to socialise and make friends. In a hotel, you mainly enclose yourself off from the rest of the residents. While a hostel means sacrificing some luxuries, what you gain in exchange is far more soul enhancing for the single adventurer. As it happens Worldhouse Istanbul is a great place to stay, and very clean and stylish (and believe me, I’ve seen some right dumps. The place I stayed in Prague once was nice enough, but I think medieval monks had better dormitories!)
I read somewhere that I probably don’t need an alarm clock as I’ve got a Virgo ascendant! Now, whether you believe in that kind of thing or not, I certainly bound out of bed like a human alarm clock; infact I don’t own a physical one, and haven’t for years. Unless I’ve had too much wine or beer the night before, I awake exactly when I plan to! This may well be a control freak tendency (some may say OCD…well, you say tomahta, I say tomatoe!) Seriously now, I’m not that bad! But controlling or not, I certainly double (neigh, triple) check everything. This means feeling for my passport in my jacket pocket about twenty times, while thinking I might have actually overlooked something else while I’m over checking the passport. My natural anxiety issues aside, I finally headed out. I always feel better once I’ve caught the Manchester Airport train, and braced myself for the usual airport security inconveniences.
The first moment of true excitement (bordering on mild fear) was arriving in Istanbul and not knowing where the baggage reclaim was. Well, not the right baggage reclaim. Twenty-five minutes after arrival, without my main suitcase, I was getting a bit on edge! I blame Turkish signage, but once I had my luggage and a taxi ordered, so began a slightly apprehensive 23km journey (apparently) from Ataturk Airport to the district of Beyoglu (more of which later). The driver spoke about five words of English, which was a coincidence as it perfectly matched by arson of Turkish words. I shall fill you in on my desperate attempts to communicate in Turkish in a later entry, but in my defence it is a very difficult language to master. Everything I tried to learn in weeks previously had seeped out of my brain. As we neared the historical centre I could see the flood lit forms of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque (not to mention several other as yet unidentified minaret adorned places of worship). I knew that I wasn’t (metaphorically) being taken for a ride, and was instead actually being taken for a ride in roughly the right direction.
Anyhow, I arrived safely at my destination (after a mild confusion with the taxi driver forgetting where Galata Tower is. I mean…come on! Big sod off tower? Biggest landmark in Boyoglu? I even showed the man a photo!) The guy probably fleeced me for an extra 10 Turkish Lira, but you know what, it was late and I was tired, so “just get me there” was my thought process by that point. So yes, it was late, so after dumping my luggage in the room and introducing myself to my room-mates (a friendly Australian couple from Perth), I headed out for a bite to eat and to get my bearings. Sure enough Galata Tower was just around the corner (and could infact be seen from the upstairs hostel window). Musicians were out on the square, coffee shops and restaurants were slowly winding down for the night, with diners still eating out in the humid air, and there was a general ambience I quite liked. I then experienced the first distinct smell of Istanbul, which although not unpleasant, was certainly not what I was used to; but more of that later. It was busy though, and that night did feel like a ‘sink or swim’ situation; a small baptism of fire! The then pertinent question I asked myself was, “am I going to hide away safely in a corner and avoid the challenges of a solo trip to a strange and very foreign city, or embrace the opportunity”? I have to say, and you’ll be pleased to know, that I embraced it. I shall tell you how in the next installment, and hopefully give any potential solo travellers out there the tips and tactics to ensure your own solo adventure goes just as well (with, as you’ll see, several unexpected blips and thrills along the way).